Lessons from The Post

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Teresa S. Abesamis

Grassroots & Governance

Steven Spielberg’s sense of timing is clearly remarkable. We have the press in the US under siege from the White House with charges of fake news being widely exchanged. Here in our own country, we have Rappler, a trailblazer in online media, being banned by Malacañang; and rumor has it, the hard-hitting Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN are also under threat from an increasingly authoritarian government.

In Spielberg’s The Post, a political thriller about The Washington Post and its attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers, we have awesome direction and production, as well as superb acting by Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, respectively. The inspiring film dramatically raises constitutional issues about the role of the press in a democracy.

In 1971, during the Vietnam War, The Washington Post, then a local Washington DC paper, was playing catch-up with the venerable nationally circulated New York Times, which had published Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Rand Corp.’s US Defense Department-contracted study on the war.

The study, now known as the Pentagon Papers, covered US involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967 and was commissioned by then Defense secretary Robert McNamara. It revealed that the US government had, for years, concealed its recognition that the war was unwinnable. The White House and the Defense department had been effectively lying to the public as the country continued to send thousands of young Americans to fight and die in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, because of its limited circulation, the financially shaky Graham family owned Post was in the process of negotiating the sale of minority shares when Bradlee’s team got hold of copies of the same Pentagon Papers a few days after the Times began publishing excerpts. The government then had already obtained a suspension order from the courts against publication of the Vietnam War study in the Times. The Washington Post’s lawyers and members of its board vehemently objected to Bradlee’s plan to publish the papers at a time when the New York Times had been silenced by the judiciary.

The sale of shares in the Post, which was badly needed for survival and future growth, was endangered, they argued, if the Post were to also publicize part of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers. Since the Post’s source for the Papers was also the source for the New York Times exposé, they raised the certain possibility that the Post could be charged with contempt, and that publisher Graham and editor Bradlee could go to jail. Worse, the sale of Post shares would be jeopardized. Many jobs would be lost. The paper could close down.

This was the problem that publisher Graham had to confront while legendary editor Ben Bradlee pushed hard for the Pentagon Papers’ publication. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee insisted. Graham, who had socialized with secretary McNamara and president Lyndon B. Johnson, had taken over after her husband Phil — who had been designated successor by her father — committed suicide. She had never held a job before then. In 1971, women withdrew to the drawing room to talk about lifestyle issues when their husbands talked politics or business over coffee. They did not run companies.

The film centers on Graham’s dilemma: to publish or not. Amid the male-dominated board’s vehement insistence that she take the prudent option, for the sake of the company and its people, Graham, after agonizing over the implications of her decision, finally decides in favor of publication. “The mission of the paper,” she finally avers, “is dedicated to the welfare of the nation.” She also reminds the board that the Post was no longer her father’s paper, nor her husband’s. “It is my paper,” she concludes.

The Pentagon Papers case in the judiciary began with a temporary restraining order issued by a newly Nixon-appointed judge, who, four days later, ruled in favor of the Times. The government then elevated the case to the Court of Appeals which ruled in favor of the government; the case was then elevated to the Supreme Court.

As we now know, the truly independent Supreme Court ruled six-three in favor of the right to publish by the New York Times — this meant, too, that the Post was protected from harassment. Justice Hugo Black, in his opinion, stated: “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Following the exposé, President Richard Nixon gave the order: “The Washington Post is never to be in the White House again.”

Between 1972 and 1976, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward researched and wrote their exposé of the Watergate break-in, which, after being threatened with impeachment and being overwhelmed by widespread public protests, forced Richard Nixon to resign. Woodward and Bernstein’s landmark success would go on to inspire the next generation of investigative reporters

In 1989, nine Filipino journalists “who realized, from their years in the beat and at the news desk, the need for newspapers and broadcast agencies to go beyond day–to–day reportage” founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

The PCIJ founders, now leading lights in investigative reporting in the Philippines, include, notably, courageous women: Marites Vitug, Sheila Coronel, Malou Mangahas, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, et al. Their track records have attracted global attention. Today, Sheila Coronel is the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. Malou Mangahas is executive director of PCIJ, and Lorna K. Tirol is a freelance book writer and editor. Book author Marites Vitug is now editor-at-large of Rappler, the online news network now under siege from President Rodrigo Duterte and his minions.

The Philippine Constitution provides under Article 3, Section 7: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

The US Constitution goes further. The First Amendment to the US Constitution as adopted in 1791 reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As a film, The Post has three underlying themes: freedom of the press, empowerment of women, and the independence of the judiciary. Our policy makers, media professionals, and civil society leaders should learn lessons from the model for the democratic systems we are still trying to strengthen and protect.

The campaign to revise or replace the Philippine Constitution is underway. While it is packaged as “federalism,” more is at stake than merely changing the structure for governance. Many of the democratic provisions of our Constitution — for which many lives have been sacrificed — are under threat: among them freedom of the press, human rights, even our territorial imperatives. Under our democracy, this is a government “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

We cannot let our guard down.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.